Prayers for a Young Mother, Proposed

Prayers for a Young Mother, Proposed


motherwitsummer07Prayer for the Care of Children

Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children: Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.   —The Book of Common Prayer, 1976                                                                                                                                                                             

Prayer before the Market

O God, please let this be a good and productive shop. Please help me to keep my wits about me, even though I appear to have left my list at home. Please give me the clarity of mind to remember that, like the animals on the ark, good things come in pairs: the peanut butter and the jelly, the bagels and the cream cheese, the yogurt and the one hundred percent organic no fructose no sat-fat cereal bars, the Fresh Step and the Meow Mix. Please let this not be senior citizen day, or, if it is your will that it be so, please give me patience and good cheer as I maneuver around their carts which clog every aisle. Please help me to remember that the time will come soon enough when I too will need help reaching the extra large box of All-Bran on the top shelf. Please open my heart so I never forget that this $105 worth of groceries is a blessing directly from you, O Lord, and that I should therefore swing by the food bank and deposit some of it on their doorstep. Please give me the time to do this and not be late for pickup. Amen.

Prayer at Pickup

Please let me be on time. Please help this stupid, stupid woman in her gigantic planet-trashing SUV to turn off her phone and make the left turn already. And then please keep the light green for just one more second. Please don’t let me be late. If it’s somehow your will that I am late, please fill the small, tight heart of the program director with mercy and pity so that she doesn’t charge me the completely outrageous one dollar per minute late fee. Please let there not have been any more biting. Please don’t let those moms with the perky blond ponytails and the girly pink baseball caps judge my child. Please don’t let them give each other that look, or at least please don’t let me see them do it. Please let my baby be happy today. Please no tears, please not that thing with the screaming and the knees. Please let us have peace at pickup. Thank you.

Prayer before Sex

O God, please let this be fast. But not, you know, too fast. Please let it be just enough for both of us, if you get my meaning. Please let our blessed babies stay where they belong, especially Mr. I-just-turned-two-watch-me-climb-out-of-my-crib. Please let me forget about the groceries and that nightmare at pickup this afternoon. Please help me relax. Please send us a little lightning bolt of that old giddy feeling, that wave of engulfing joy that first brought us together, that helped us make this family. Please let us be carried away for just a few minutes. And after, please send us sweet release so we sleep in each other’s arms like the sheeted dead. It’s been, as you know Lord, a long day. Amen.

Brain, Child (Summer 2007)

Artwork by Beth Hannon Fuller 

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Losing My Religion


doubtWhen my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.

“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”

It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.

From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.

“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”

That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.

The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.

Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.

And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.

Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?

Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.

Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.

Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.

But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.

To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?

On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.

This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.

My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.

As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.

Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.

The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.

From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.

It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.

So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.

Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2003)

Art by Elizabeth Hannon

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By Tracy Mayor

spring2008_mayorI took my son on a bus ride. Boston, Massachusetts, to Ithaca, New York.

In a car, the trip from Boston to Ithaca takes six and a half hours with a pee break; eight if you add a second pit stop with lunch; twelve if you give yourself the quintessential summertime gift of detouring through Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In a Greyhound bus, that same journey inexplicably routes you first through New York City, then New Jersey, then Pennsylvania, then upstate New York till you arrive, like weary Odysseus lo those many centuries before, in Ithaca. Total time, station to station: nine hours, fifty-four minutes.

“It’s an adventure,” I told Connor as we stood waiting for the driver to take our tickets at 7:30 on a July morning already warm enough to heat up and distribute exhaust fumes to every corner of the bus station. In lieu of summer camp, I was taking him to spend a week with my college roommate and her family, his first time far from home without us. “If we hate it, it’s just one day lost out of our lives, and we’ll never do it again.”

Connor banged his forehead against my shoulder in a mock is-this-really-my-life gesture. The impact was enough to send me jumping back to keep my takeout coffee from sloshing on our feet. All spring we’d been dealing with these bodily mishaps–the playful punches that wound up bruising, the hip checks that sent us sprawling across the kitchen.

He was twelve and a half, suddenly just three inches shorter than me, on the edge of something and edgy at home. He’d finished kayak camp in June, already knocked back half a dozen Star Wars novelizations, and seemed committed to spending the rest of the summer idly provoking his brother and interrupting the dog’s nap. It was time, his father and I thought, to get Connor out of his comfort zone.

If discomfort is what we sought, discomfort was what we got. It was freezing inside the bus. Not chilly cold, but meat-locker cold. In my straw bag we’d packed the typical modern array of digital amusements (one laptop, one game system, one cell phone, two iPods) plus a few analog backup devices (two novels, three magazines, a deck of cards) and a pound of M&M Plains that was already hovering on the edge of my radar. But my summer-weight cotton sweater and his requisite ‘tween hoodie were stowed in Connor’s bag underneath the bus, tantalizingly close but irretrievable.

When the bus pulled off the highway a half hour into our trip to pick up more passengers, I popped up the aisle and out into the sunshine to take care of the problem, all jaunty, can-do momitude in my city walking shorts and red leather clogs.

The driver was loading the last of the new luggage into the bay. “My son is cold,” I said to him, smiling, rubbing my hands together to show him what I meant, hoping that when he heard the word “son” he pictured a shivering infant rather than a strapping twelve-year-old. “I thought I’d just grab our sweaters real quick.”

He turned his face slightly in my direction, not meeting my eye, then turned silently back to the bay. It was completely packed. Leaning in, I couldn’t see even a corner of our duffle in the back.

I got back on the bus. Connor had retracted his arms inside his T-shirt like a turtle. “How many hours to New York?” he asked, aghast. “Four,” I told him, which wasn’t true; it was four and a half. “Take my clogs. They’re warmer.” He unstrapped his river sandals.

For what would be the only time in our lives, we were wearing the exact same shoe size. We swapped footwear, wrapped ourselves around each other like puppies and looked out the cold window at the sun-warmed world outside, the wildflowers on the side of the highway waving in the hot breeze as we blasted by.

“Why are you taking the bus?” people had asked in the week before our departure, in tones that suggested urine-soaked seatmates, dirty terminals, and probable criminal behavior against one’s person and possessions. “Gas isn’t that high.”

Gas was indeed that high, but not yet as high as two Greyhound tickets. Moreover, we had two perfectly good working vehicles in our driveway, and I’d made the run to Ithaca dozens of times before. I adore road trips. One summer, a friend and I drove nine thousand miles in a big loop around the country in a tiny car the color of a pencil with no air-conditioning, and often we logged five hundred miles in a day no problem.

But I was twenty-four then, not forty-four. Now in a typical week I drive the same roads over and over at the same time of day, and many afternoons I find myself staring through the windshield with all the mental acuity of a goldfish in its bowl. Much as I hate to admit it, a tiny part of me wasn’t sure I could trust myself to pay attention for that long anymore.

Plus, I was sick of being in charge. On the highway, you feel duty-bound as a driver to judge your fellow travelers as you maneuver in and around one another, pulling ahead to pass them or switching lanes to let them blow by you doing eighty-five. You feel obligated to at least consider calling the cops about the way that mattress is hanging off the back end of the pickup ahead of you.

And if you’re a twelve-year-old boy and your mother is at the wheel and the journey is long, it’s simply impossible not to see her as an eminently lobbyable person, someone who might at any moment agree to exit the highway and head for that Quiznos over there, or stop for the laser tag or putt-putt golf advertised on that billboard, or buy a Big Bag of Skittles at the Stop ‘n’ Go, or detour to Howe Caverns, if only she’s asked frequently enough at sufficiently random intervals.

In the bus, we are driven. The driver is in charge, and because it’s clear from the outset he’s not going to stop for Skittles, we don’t ask. We sit next to one another as equals, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, riding companionably with our fellow travelers, each of us on our own journey but together for now in the same bus hurtling communally down the highway.

As we got closer to New York, we did the things done by New Englanders who don’t get down there much. We hissed out the window, as dutiful Red Sox fans should, at Shea Stadium in the distance; pressed our foreheads against the glass to watch the foreign world of the Bronx whisk past; said things like, “there’s the Triborough Bridge,” but not too loudly in case we were all turned around and that was in fact the Whitestone Bridge we were looking at; passed landmarks even Northern rubes like us couldn’t miss–the Museum of Natural History, Central Park–and then suddenly we were sucked from the daylight into the dark maw of Port Authority.

Connor unfurled our yard-long ribbon of fan-folded tickets to figure out our timetable. “Great news,” he reported. It seemed we had almost two hours before our next bus–to Binghamton–pulled out. Plenty of time, he figured, to bop up to the Nintendo World megastore at Rockefeller Center.

As it turned out, we had just enough time to navigate through three levels of the building, utterly lost, before finding the departure gate to Binghamton, where the only bus of the afternoon was leaving immediately, our tickets’ printed departure time be damned.

This bus was warmer, better. The seats were higher, the windows bigger, the clientele different enough (old couples rather than young students) to make us feel we’d been somewhere, traveled somehow. We lurched out of the terminal, dropped into the shabby cavern of the Lincoln Tunnel, and then we were done–out of New York just as quickly as we’d gone in.

As the day wore on, Connor listened to his music, eyes open but unseeing, staring absently at the houndstooth check of the upholstery in front of him. I looked at my boy, his face so close to mine, with his high cheekbones and thick brown hair standing on end in places and his caramel-colored eyes, the lip that may or may not have the faintest beginning of fuzz on it, his smooth skin with the tiniest hints of pores to come. Short, thick eyelashes. Almond-shaped eyes, straight nose. He is a dead ringer for his father, only purer. More intense.

Connor turned, pulling out an ear bud. “What are you looking at?” he said.

“Nothing,” I told him.

Loving an adolescent is a lot like being an adolescent–you have to hide the intensity of your feelings, the sheer volume and volubility of your emotions, lest you scare off the people around you. “Break out those M&Ms,” I said.

For lunch, we ate orange peanut-butter–crackers, a little box each of raisins, and as much candy as we could handle at one time without feeling sick. In between, Connor described in exhaustive detail how to win when playing “Age of Empires.” (Hint: Destroy the other armies one at a time.) Then we played Crazy 8s, one of the few card games that lends itself to the tight confines of a bus seat, followed by, when we got bored with the 8s, Crazy 7s, Crazy 2s and Crazy Aces. Connor laughed out loud at how easy it was to fool me by playing the wild card from the previous game.

In Binghamton, it dawned on us that the two-something hours we’d managed to pick up along the journey were to be squandered in a bus station that overlooked another bus station in one direction and three crumbling parking lots in the others. There were no earlier buses to Ithaca, now a frustratingly close fifty minutes away.

We walked once around the outside of the building, just to be outdoors, but a hot wind was blowing dirt through the air and our luggage, which we didn’t dare to leave unattended inside, was heavy. We were the only two people out of doors who weren’t there to smoke. This, I said to myself as we retreated back inside, is what people were imagining when they had said, “You’re taking the bus?”

Connor checked my cell phone for messages (there were none), then compensated by leaving a long mournful message for his father and brother on our home answering machine that made our entire journey sound simultaneously disastrous and boring, while I talked over him in the background, saying things like “That’s not true,” and “It’s not so bad.”

On the bus to Ithaca, our last and shortest hop, I tried to think what I should say to Connor about his upcoming week away that wouldn’t sound like micromanaging–advice about how to handle his laundry, how to politely eat around food he didn’t like, how to share a single bathroom with five people, how it was possible at the same time to feel horribly homesick and be having a wonderful time.

In the end, it all seemed like too much yap, so I said none of it, settling instead on an all-purpose maxim. “Try to be more polite with them than you are with us,” I said. We both laughed.

“I’m going to miss you, pup,” I told him, fluffing his hair.

He shrugged. “I’ll IM you.”

We arrived in Ithaca on time to the minute, 5:24 p.m. Our friends took us straight from the bus station to their boat, and as the warm summer evening spread like glass over Cayuga Lake, our trip began already to feel like something we did once, as a lark, a long time ago.

Going home alone the next day was a different kind of journey. The bus headed straight north to Syracuse, mounting the long, slow hill that climbs for miles high above the lake, then back across the New York State Thruway and the Mass Pike, as direct a trip as you could want.

I sat by myself in a window seat and did something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager myself: read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one summer day. I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a book so pitch-perfect that every once in a while I had to put it down for a moment, out of respect for its flawlessness. During those pauses I stared out the window and let my thoughts swim around the edges of my boy, stopping here and there on practical things. Had he remembered to bring an extra pair of sneakers, as I had asked him to? Did I give him enough money for the movies, and, if I did, had he put it somewhere where he’d be able to find it again?

But my thoughts kept sliding closer to the essence of our trip. He hadn’t asked for any of this; I had been the one to set it all in motion. But he hadn’t said no, either. We might miss each other terribly, or we might both be perfectly fine. Either way, there was nothing to do now but let the hours unfold until the week was up and I was back again.

I felt hollow under the breastbone and tight at the base of my throat. Missing someone fiercely feels a little like anxiety and a little like grief, but it’s lighter, more buoyant. It’s just plain love, only stretched out long.

As the bus headed east toward Boston, the afternoon slant of the summer sun on the wide window created a hovering double reflection, with an image of the interior of the bus superimposed against the picture of the world outside. I looked out and watched the country flying past and, at the same moment, my own self hurtling forward.

Brain, Child (Spring 2008)

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Single Mom Stigma, Alive and Kicking


summer2011_mayorhpThey’re easy. They’re slutty. They got pregnant with some random guy. Or, selfishly, they ran out to the sperm bank when they turned forty. It’s their fault.

They’re always broke. They’re on welfare. They’re sponging off the taxpayers. They should work for a living, and, simultaneously, they should stay home with their kids. Whatever they do, it’s never as good as what a married mom does. Ever. It’s their fault.

They should have worked harder to keep their marriages together. They go out partying anytime the ex has the children. They’re man-haters. Or manhunters, who shouldn’t be left alone with other people’s husbands. Their kids are troubled, or troublemakers, bound for the penitentiary, suffering without a male in the house, un-cared for, un-read to, a bad influence on other children.

They’re brave but pitiable. Their families, and their lives, aren’t complete because they don’t have a mommy and a daddy living under the same roof. And that’s their fault.

Thank God it’s 2011, not the 1950s, and people no longer subscribe to those heinously out-of-date stereotypes about single mothers. Right? Right?

Maybe not. This past February, the Pew Research Center issued findings from its survey on changes in family structure, in which respondents were asked to rank a list of seven trends, such as interracial marriage and gay couples raising kids, as being good, bad, or of no consequence to society. More respondents—nearly seven out of ten—ranked “single mothers” as being bad for society—more than any of the other choices.

The mainstream media, hot to get out in front of the next toxic mothering meme (think “Helicopter Mom,” “Tiger Mom,” and “Botox Mom”), had a field day, summarizing the finding with headlines like “Single Mothers ‘Bad For Society’, Pew Research Center’s Latest Poll Finds” (Huffington Post) and “Single motherhood still rejected by most Americans, poll finds” (Washington Post). Page views soared, blog posts proliferated, and comment boxes filled with opinions both judgmental and defensive.

Completely lost in the media coverage was the fact that the Pew Research study wasn’t asking about “single mothers” in general—meaning any woman currently parenting without a partner. The survey asked—quite ambiguously—what respondents thought about “more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them.”

Did the Pew Research Center intend the word “having” to mean “I have children and am currently their sole caretaker, regardless of whether I was partnered in the past”? Or did the center mean “having” in the sense of birthing—meaning women who, through intent or accident, were solo parents from the outset? ?It takes some digging around to discern the surveyors’ true intent—an earlier iteration of the same survey was more explicit, asking how respondents felt about “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them.” Aha—“deciding” is decidedly more specific than “having.”

It’s safe to say this distinction was likely lost on survey-takers and absolutely lost in the media coverage. Either way, the results of the survey and the way it was picked up and conflated in the press indicate that, more than a decade into a new millennium, single motherhood is still a tender topic.

That got us to wondering: How is it that, as a society, we apparently haven’t moved the needle much on perceptions of single mothers, even as survey respondents were more accepting of arguably more radical changes to the family like gay parenting? Single mothers are everywhere, and their numbers have been steadily rising for thirty years. In 1980, 19.5 percent of United States households with children were headed by single parents; in 2008, the number was up to 29.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and eighty-four percent of those households are headed up by women.

Do seven out of ten of us disapprove of our own sisters, friends, and neighbors, our own selves? Or is there something more subtle going on? There is an almost infinite variety in the ways that women become and conduct themselves as single mothers, but when people are filling out surveys, do they revert to some kind of worst-case view of single moms?

Consider the notorious “welfare queen” of the Reagan era—most famously put into words by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That’s how dependent she is,” he said of his sister Emma Mae Martin in 1983. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”

As the eighties rolled on, the welfare queen trope picked up other elements, like crack abuse. There’s a lot of baggage built into that caricature: racist, sexist, religious, moral, and economic. (And, for the record, the caricature proved to be largely just that—Thomas’s sister, for example, was on welfare for fewer than five years to nurse the elderly aunt who’d cared for her children while she worked.).

It’s likely you need only to hit one or two of those hot buttons to trigger a negative reaction in people who might be perfectly accepting of the single mothers they know personally while disapproving of “other mothers” that fit their preconceived stereotypes.

Of course, it’s also possible that women who actually are single mothers could agree that single motherhood is bad for society as a whole. Most didn’t choose it for themselves. They didn’t want their husbands or partners to leave, or die, or threaten them or their children. There are real hardships, economic and emotional, associated with single motherhood, especially if you didn’t plan for it from the start.

To unpack some of that baggage, we talked to single mothers in their various incarnations—women who are divorced or widowed, mothers who were abandoned by their children’s fathers, and those who are single mothers by choice. Each woman traveled a different path to single momhood—and some are single no more—yet they agreed almost universally on one point: No matter how their legion grows, people still think of single mothers as disruptive and outside the norm.

“Single mothers are still a problem to be fixed,” says Robin LeBlanc, who both studies public discourse about single moms in her role as a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and is one herself. “On the left, they’re seen as victims of failed social policy. On the right, a symptom of moral failure. It’s interesting that most of us no longer thing of gayness as a problem that needs to be fixed, but single mothers are still viewed that way.”

What rankles single mothers like Donna Raskin perhaps the most is a pervasive insistence that no mother, no matter how dedicated, stable, and accomplished, can raise a child as competently as a man and woman together, no matter what the state of their union.

“Many people assume two parents are better than one, but that isn’t true at all,” says Raskin, whose son’s father left when the boy was nine months old. “I have had people tell me that they are staying in miserable marriages with spouses who cheat, drink, or do drugs just so their children aren’t growing up in a ‘single parent home.’ As if having a single parent, even a wonderful single parent, is worse than living in a home with parents who hate each other or where one parent is a true problem.”

“To me this is lazy thinking,” says Raskin, a teacher and writer in Pennington, New Jersey. “They’re insulting me to my face, and they’re not even acknowledging how loved and happy and successful my child is.”

LeBlanc seconds that thought. “If there is a poor family struggling and the parents are married, we talk about them as a ‘working family’ and they get a mention in the State of the Union,” she says. “You don’t hear that same tone about working single mothers. There’s a presumption that there’s something wrong with that woman.”

“It’s a special kind of sexism,” LeBlanc contends. “I don’t know how many times we’ve had to hear people praise Barack Obama and [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor because they became who they are ‘even though’ they were raised by a single mother.”

Jamie Wallace says there’s a specific kind of opprobrium directed toward a woman who actively chooses to leave her child’s father, rather than being cast as a victim who’s been abandoned, cheated on, or otherwise had the union fall apart against her will.

Wallace initiated a separation from her husband after fourteen years of marriage, when their daughter was three, with the support of two different marriage therapists. “I finally said to myself, if two professionals and my gut are telling me this is not coming to a good conclusion, I have to accept that and get out,” she says.

Not everyone else was as accepting. “There was a feeling of, ‘what’s the matter with you that you couldn’t hold your marriage together?’” Wallace recalls. “I did have some people say, ‘Who are you to make this decision?’ or call me selfish because I initiated the separation. I was told I should have stuck it out, and put my needs last until my daughter was older.”

Suzy Vitello knows the story from the other side of the coin. Vitello, now a marketer and writer of young adult fiction in Oregon, became a single mom at twenty-six not by any action of her own but by the car accident that killed her husband four days before their second child was born, when their first was just eighteen months old. ?People didn’t judge a young widow—thankfully—but still, the reception was troubling.

“People wanted to take care of me. I was put in the category of vulnerable, somebody who might make bad decisions,” Vitello recalls. “I felt most on guard with people who were trying to swoop me up, make me live with them, tell me what I needed to do next. I felt like I didn’t need that. I had been raised very independently, and had had a traditional family orientation only for the very brief time period of my marriage.” Vitello eventually moved across country to get clear from the smothering blanket of concern.

Years later, when divorcing a second husband with whom she’d had another child, she caught the same blast of blame that Wallace had experienced. “I think that people are saddened by failure,” Vitello muses. “Because the man-woman-children relationship is culturally the architecture for stability, people project their own fears about failure onto that, depending on where they’re coming from culturally or religiously. They need to know who was the cheater, who was the drug abuser. If there was none of that, they want to know why you didn’t try hard enough. They want to know what’s wrong with you.”

Single mothers are “single” not just in the sense that they’re parenting solo, but that they’re viewed as socially and sexually unattached. And that, says Martha Albertson Fineman, can mess with society’s head, because once women in our culture become mothers, they’re not supposed to be available sexually.

Fineman, author of The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, says that the belief underlying many divorce cases and custody battles is that a woman without a steady sexual partner is likely to sacrifice the needs of her children. “A mother’s sexuality is expected to be subsumed and stable. There is a fear that a single mother’s sexuality will jeopardize her child,” says Fineman, director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

“We have changed our attitudes about sex outside of marriage, but expectations for mothers have remained unchanged. You are expected to put your children’s issues above your own, including your career and your sexual appetites.”

Because she has a steady man in her life, Wallace hasn’t had the experience of some other single mothers, who say they have been perceived as a threat by their married or partnered friends. But Wallace does clearly see the destabilizing influence her single-mother lifestyle can have on her friends’ relationships.

“There was a lot of curiosity among my friends when I was going through my split, a lot of self-questioning. It gets people thinking about their own situation, about how stable their marriage really is,” she says. “And at times I do sense a little bit of jealousy. I get to go out every other weekend or have time to myself, knowing my daughter is safe with her father. People can make time like that within their marriages, but it takes work.”

Just as single mothers can cause other women to question the state of their unions, they can cause men to wonder, at least subconsciously, if they’re still needed in the family equation.

Surprisingly, early American thinkers actually viewed single men as a threat to a stable society. Marriage and fatherhood were viewed as a way to bring out men’s more noble selves—once men started caring for wives and children, the idea went, they’d extend that largesse to society as a whole, explains Washington and Lee’s LeBlanc. In that context, women were needed to play the role of submissive wife and bearer of babies to lure men into a domestic, responsible state of existence.

That, of course, has all changed. Thanks to the career independence that came out of the feminist movement, women—specifically, women educated for a career—don’t need marriage economically in the way that they once did. “I don’t have to be married if I’m not happy being married,” says LeBlanc.

That simple change has had a profound impact on men’s roles as husbands and fathers. “If a woman can take her kid and go off on her own, men think, where does that leave me?” LeBlanc asks. “More generally, people may look at a single mother and say, ‘If she doesn’t have to play by these rules, then what are the rules? Why is she allowed to make up her own life?’”

Jane Mattes knows a thing or two about breaking the rules and leaving men out of the equation—and getting grief for it. Mattes, a psychotherapist in New York?City, founded the advocacy organization Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) in 1981 after intentionally getting pregnant without a partner and realizing that women choosing that route needed lots of support to counter societal disapproval.

Mattes says women can still be judged for stepping outside the prescribed mommy-daddy role, but nothing like they used to be. “Believe me, it was much, much, much worse thirty years ago,” Mattes says.

Especially then, but still even now, some men are insulted by the very premise of her organization. “Men feel that we’re saying they’re not important or that they’re a dispensable option, which is not the case. Our position is simply that you have a lifetime to find the right man but only a limited number of years to bear or adopt children.”

In fact, some ninety-eight percent of SMC members polled say they would have preferred to have a child in a loving relationship, Mattes says. “Very few felt this was their first choice, but a least it is a viable choice.”

Cara DeAngelis wasn’t thinking much about men when she joined SMC in 1994, a little more than a year after the untimely death of a longtime love. Nor did she encounter any blowback when she became pregnant on her own. “The day I told my mom I was first pregnant she said, ‘Oh thank God, thank God,’” DeAngelis recalls. “Nobody was going to criticize me after what I’d gone through—people just wanted me to live, no matter what it took.”

Now mother to two teenaged boys, DeAngelis says she has been able to sidestep much of the criticism and burden of being a single mother, partly because of continued support from a large family and wide circle of friends, but also, she concedes, because she is a prominent professional with a steady income. “I think people don’t criticize me because I’m a doctor. I float above the fray.”

As with almost every other aspect of American life, economics plays a big role in shaping perceptions about single mothers. Women like DeAngelis who set out to have children by themselves are overwhelmingly middle-class or above, sometimes far above, with good careers and a solid support network.

That’s not always the case for single mothers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 29.9 percent of households headed by females with no husband present were at or below the poverty level in 2009, compared with 5.8 percent for married-couple households. In turn, children raised in poverty are more likely to lack access to healthcare, suffer from poor nutrition and obesity, experience violence and unintentional injury, and experiment with drugs and alcohol in adolescence, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Those kinds of statistics, though they don’t apply to the majority of single-mom households, could well be the reason so many Pew Research survey respondents said single mothers were bad for society, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“Something that works for someone on an individual level can be disturbing on a societal level,” says Coontz, author of several books on marriage and family, most recently A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. “The vast majority of women who end up as single moms have not had a chance to assess their situation or prepare for the challenge. They don’t have the support systems that they need.”

A lack of access to decent education for her and her children, to living-wage employment, to engaged mentors and role models, to reliable and affordable birth control, to employed and employable partners, and to safe neighborhoods … the list of ways in which a single mother in poverty is challenged is long and complicated, says Coontz.

“With the growing gap between the haves and have nots, you have whole communities of women raising kids on their own.” It’s not their singleness, but their chronic impoverishment and dearth of suitable, stable life partners that’s the problem, Coontz says. But when it comes time to check the box on the survey, “single mother” is the label that sticks.

Seen in that light, the Pew Research survey’s unfavorable view of single mothers may not be a condemnation as much as an acknowledgement that any single parent can have a tougher time, emotionally and economically, than a pair of parents.

The Pew Research survey did not ask respondents their opinions about single fathers raising children alone (and they make up just sixteen percent of the custodial-parent population)—so it’s impossible to know if respondents would have felt more strongly biased against one sex or the other as a single parent.

But the survey did find that people were less negative about unmarried couples and gay couples raising kids together than they were about single mothers—a possible indication that people believe simply that two—any two—is better than one when it comes to raising children.

With households headed by single women making up twenty-five percent of all households with children in America, what most frustrates many single moms is that they and their families are still considered to be so far outside the ideal “norm” even though that norm dominates less and less every year.

“There is a feeling of supremacy or superiority of two parent families that is pervasive in this society, regardless the numbers that clearly illustrate single-parent households are plentiful,” says Kelli Kirk, a Seattle writer and mother of two who recently remarried after four years of solo parenting.

It drives her crazy that people will think nothing of leaving a single mother out of social events or outings, assuming she may not be able to afford it or she’ll feel awkward around only couples. “Don’t make the decision for us, please and thanks,” says Kirk. “We are not ‘half’ a family—we are our own family. A mom and a kid, or two kids, or three. It’s nice to be treated as if we are the absolute equal of a family of four with two parents, because we are.”

For her part, Donna Raskin wishes simply that people would untether the words “single” and “mother.”

“The best times for me are when people take my marital status out of the equation in our relationships. When they don’t judge me or make assumptions about me or my child, when they find out who we are as people. That makes me and my son feel safe and happy.”

“What is true about being a single mother is that the ‘single’ has almost nothing to do with the ‘mother,’” she says. “I’m a good mom, and I would be a good mom whether or not I am or am not married.”

Author’s Note: As always, I am humbled and grateful when people are willing to spill their guts for a story I’m writing. A big thank you to the women quoted in this piece and also to the many mothers who shared their single-mom stereotypes on Brain, Child’s Facebook page. I really do believe that telling stories is the best way to change minds. Thanks for being part of the process.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000. 

Armageddon Mama: Parenting toward the Apocalypse

By Tracy Mayor

fall2010_mayorLast February, a freak storm blew through our region one unseasonably warm Thursday night, packing flooding rains and fearsome winds that caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage in about ten minutes’ time.

I was out—minus my husband and kids, a rare week night occurrence—and drove home over pitch-dark roads amid downed power lines and whole stands of trees that had been toppled so suddenly and so recently that the air was full of the smell of pine and dirt. Three times I started down familiar streets, only to have to turn back because they were impassable.

When I finally pulled into our debris-strewn driveway after midnight, I found our power out and our dog waiting anxiously by the door. My boys, a teen and a tween, had gone to bed, but my husband, Tom, was up waiting for me, nodding off at the kitchen table, incongruously surrounded by the happy glow of a dozen winking tea lights.

Those tiny, useless candles, left over from a dinner party, pretty much constituted the whole of our emergency-preparedness stash. Once upon a time (after 9/11, to be precise), we’d halfheartedly stocked up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and duct tape, with a few cans of Dinty Moore beef stew thrown in for good measure. But over the years the cache had been multiply raided by the disaster-indifferent inhabitants of the place: The water went to a school function and the stew to a canned-food drive; the duct tape was commandeered for a Halloween costume.

Our stash of flashlights, at one time carefully kept within easy reach for just such a emergency, had been scattered to the four corners of our property after a late-night game of outdoor tag one summer night. But even if Tom had been able to locate them in the howling dark, it wouldn’t have mattered. The batteries we’d hoarded had long since been reassigned to game controller duty. I rummaged through a junk drawer and found a tiny penlight for each of us, then gave up and crawled to bed, grateful that I’d finally broken down a few months earlier and bought us all real down comforters, which kept us warm in our beds even as the temperature sank.

By morning, the house was down to fifty-three degrees. Staggering outside, dazed and coffeeless, Tom and I discovered that the enormous crash the boys had heard the night before was an oak tree that had split in half and raked the back of the house as it fell, shattering my older son’s bedroom window and peeling off a line of clapboards on its way down.

In town, power lines swung aimlessly, and whole neighborhoods were blockaded by uprooted trees. Most frightening to any New Englander: There wasn’t an open Dunkin’ Donuts to be found in twenty square miles. Shaken, I returned home and took charge of the situation, the way a person might who’d long ago attended Girl Scout sleepaway camp. I dragged our grill out from its winter hiding place, fired up the briquettes in the sharp February air, feeling a bit foolish, and brought a huge pot of water to a boil.

“Look,” I said proudly to my sons, who were just emerging from their lairs, “we can make instant coffee, Swiss Miss, and oatmeal, and still have enough left over for a little spritz bath to keep clean.”

“Oh my God, I’m not washing in a spaghetti pot.” My sixteen-year-old, Connor, pulled out his iPhone and started tapping. Within ninety seconds, he’d determined that a) our street wasn’t due to get power back for three days; b) one neighborhood of new construction, where the power lines had been buried, was already back online; and therefore, c) he needed a ride to the house of his friend who lived there. Immediately.

“Don’t you want to hang with us and play Bananagrams in front of the fireplace?” I said forlornly, trailing behind him as he tossed some clothes and his toothbrush into a duffle bag.

He gave me a pitying glance. “I’ll be in the car waiting.” And that was the last we saw of that kid for seventy-two hours.

It was just as well. As it turns out, board games in a dark, cold house with a flooding basement kind of suck. Once night fell, Tom, our twelve-year-old, Will, and I gave up trying to be troopers and just went to bed. As I lay huddled next to my husband, I said, “What if this goes on indefinitely? I don’t think our kids have the right coping skills for this kind of thing. I mean, life without the Internet and all.”

“Ditching your family in favor of heat and lights sounds like an excellent coping skill to me,” Tom observed dryly. “In a real crisis, I’d follow the self-involved teenager every time.”

The ’00s have been a tough decade for parenting, anxiety-wise. Y2K set the mood, 9/11 shook us to the core, and suddenly in between changing diapers and taking pregnancy tests, we were worrying about anthrax in the mail and terrorists on every street corner. The first decade of the new millennium brought us two wars, two recessions, a flu pandemic, an autism epidemic, a childhood obesity epidemic, a housing crisis, a health care crisis, a crisis in public education, and toys made with phthalates, BPA, and lead paint from China. Whew.

Meanwhile, the globe continued to bake and, in turn, cook up ecological disasters, as Bill McKibben documents in his wrenching new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). Eaarth is the name McKibben uses to distinguish the planet on which we now live—“one that’s melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways no human has ever seen”—from the one we have known since the beginning of our existence.

Since record-keeping began, the temperature of the planet has risen by a degree-and-a-half Fahrenheit, enough to trigger a forty-five percent increase in thunderheads, which in turn generate lightning, which sets off wildfires everywhere from California neighborhoods to the Arctic tundra. As oceans warm, hurricanes and typhoons become stronger and more frequent. Meanwhile, glaciers melt, cutting off a reliable supply of clean water to hundreds of millions of people, as has already happened in northwest China, and once fertile areas like Russia’s vast wheat-growing region turn into deserts, taking the food supply with them (as I write, 1.8 million acres are burning out of control in Russia, which has responded by halting its wheat exports).

This past decade, as we helplessly watched the devastation from the string of Florida hurricanes, the Indonesian tsunami, and, most unforgettably, the breakdown of social order in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti following the February 2010 earthquake, it was almost disrespectful not to wonder, could any of that happen here? To me? To my family?

Of course, parents have worried about the state of the world since hominids first began live-birthing their young, and it can’t have been a walk in the park raising kids during World War I, or the Great Depression, or World War II, or the Cold War (heck, the whole first half of the twentieth century was no parenting picnic). But still, compared to the bubbleheaded feel-goodedness of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush eras, the ’00s have indeed been times of extraordinary worry and real economic and psychic pain among American families.

Through it all—or some experts say, because of it all—parents ramped up their involvement with their kids. A 2010 study by two economists at the University of California, San Diego analyzed a dozen surveys, taken between 1965 and 2007, of how Americans say they use their time. The UCSD report found that the amount of time spent with children had risen “dramatically” since the mid-1990s for parents at all income levels but especially among those with a college education.

Throw a stone in any family-friendly neighborhood in the country, and you’re likely to hit an SUV heading off to infant swim or to Kindermusik or gymnastics or ice skating, painting, pottery, quilting, cartooning, photography, cooking, hip-hop, ballet, West African dance, belly dancing, circus camp, herb gathering, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, canoeing, soccer, football, baseball, kickball, field hockey, lacrosse, basketball, trampoline, violin, piano, guitar, drums, voice, French, Chinese, Spanish, German, archeology, Legos, karate, judo or capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.

What’s up with the frantic enrichment? Partly it’s just plain fun for the kids (if you can afford it, of course), but according to Margaret Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont, there’s an underlying motivation as well.

Today’s parents—specifically, college-educated, professional-class parents—are deeply worried about their children’s future, says Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (2010). “With the hollowing out of the middle class in this country, it’s no longer clear what kinds of skills will lead to a good occupation and to financial success,” she explains. “A generation ago, you could say, ‘I want my child to be a doctor,’ and that would ensure financial success. Now, nobody knows.”

As a result, that class of parents strives to raise children who are both highly skilled and highly flexible. “They want them to be good athletes, to be good students, good friends, to demonstrate a wide range of skills. So if a child shows even a bit of interest in art, they sign them up for art class,” Nelson says. “The fear is that if their children settle too soon, if they settle on the wrong thing, they’ll be out of luck.”

The goal is not just entry into a top college, or success in a financially stable career, it’s to raise kids who are able to compete in the kind of world that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laid out in his best-seller, The World Is Flat (2005), where Americans must be well-educated, hard-selling, fast-moving entrepreneurs of their own careers in a fully wired, completely interconnected, always-on global marketplace of ideas and innovation.

Only problem: What if that isn’t at all what the near future will look like? What if we’re raising our kids to succeed in a George Jetson kind of world, but they wind up living more like Fred Flintstone?

You don’t need to be a Jericho junkie or holed up in a “survival condo” in the Mojave Desert (though there are in fact families doing just that) to at least imagine something happening to disrupt our wired, wealthy way of life, either temporarily or permanently.

In Eaarth, McKibben talks about the kinds of disasters induced by climate change that some societies have already experienced and that he says the rest of us can expect in the future: wars over water or food, millions of people displaced by flood or drought or killed by fast-spreading disease. In The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide (2010), financial columnist and Florida father of two Sean Brodrick takes those scenarios to a more specific level.

Brodrick, who writes for the Uncommon Wisdom newsletter and contributes to the Dow Jones MarketWatch, argues that families should be prepared to face any or all of these calamities: an oil crisis; a food crisis; mass immigration; economic depression; natural disasters like wildfires, tornados and ice storms; the collapse of the U.S. energy grid; pandemic; terrorism; and civil unrest sparked by any or all of the above.

Families, he says, need the means to bargain for or provide their own food, water, medicine, education, and entertainment (download your favorite songs and videos now, he advises, before the Internet goes dark!), as well as have access to alternate sources of power (wood, wind or solar) and transportation (scooters or bicycles). And families need to be prepped to either hunker down in situ or evacuate on very short notice ahead of a crowd. (Especially alarming, or exciting, depending upon your point of view, is Brodrick’s list of nine signs you should hit the road—at the sound of explosions in the distance, for instance, or when the government sets a curfew or fires are spreading unchecked.)

The rising generation of American kids—who statistically are fatter, more wired, and less familiar with the outdoors than any generation before them—don’t on the surface seem particularly well prepared to cope with that kind of sudden lifestyle deceleration.

Even if they’re not overweight, the average American child’s life is measured by athletic achievement and academic excellence, neither of which may count for much when the shit hits the fan (or, as Brodrick politely prefers, WTSHTF).

My kids, like many middle- and upper-class children, are in better shape than the national average. They’re fit, and thanks to day camp, overnight camp, school programs, family vacations and an unusually large amount of open space in our hometown, they’ve spent plenty of time outdoors.

But the more I thought about it, the more I worried that their suburban upbringing would only take my kids part of the way toward where they might need to go. We recycle, of course, but we don’t actually make anything from the stuff we save from the trash; a truck hauls it off somewhere, and someone else turns it back into usable material. We buy a share in a community-support farm, so my kids at least know what vegetables look like and where they come from, but our yard is so shady we don’t actually grow anything of our own, which in turn means we compost—but that, too, gets hauled away to a nearby farm. We belong to a sustainable seafood group, so my guys see their father filet a couple of whole fish most Saturday mornings, but none of us could catch one ourselves, or not reliably enough to keep us alive over a long period of time, and not if everyone else were trying to fish the same waters simultaneously.

Thanks to my time with the Girl Scouts, I know how to light a wet-wood fire, but I’m the only one in the house who does. Connor gets off the grid for ten days every summer with the Appalachian Mountain Club, where he has learned all manner of wilderness survival skills, but, ironically, not fire-building. (The super-strict Leave No Trace program that the club has adopted discourages open fires.) Our property happens to abut a hunt club, but none of us has ever hunted, ever handled a gun, or ever killed an animal. Connor has a black belt in taekwondo, and Will is nearly there, but none of us has ever had to defend ourselves, not when someone’s really trying to do us harm. When the marauding hordes come for our stash of Dinty Moore, I’m afraid we’d be helpless to do much besides hand it over.

And then there’s the issue of character. Like lots of other parents, Tom and I want our children to be well-mannered, thoughtful, tolerant, considerate, respectful, empathetic, sympathetic, charitable, and all those other soft and squishy liberal ideals. A few weeks ago, after Will had done a favor for a friend of mine, she exclaimed to me, “Your boys are so kind. I think my kids are great, but I don’t know if anybody would describe them as kind.”  At the time, I took that as a huge compliment—for Will but also for the way Tom and I are trying to bring him up.

Now? I don’t know. In a crisis, wouldn’t a kind kid get his butt kicked? Tom and I have spent the last sixteen-and-a-half years busting our humps to raise a couple of nice guys. But in this Brave New World that may be coming down the pike, what if nice guys finish last?

With the exception of home-schooled children, most American kids over the age of five spend the bulk of their time in school or on school-related activities. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, if those schools could be a first line of defense in prepping kids for a new kind of twenty-first century, one that’s hyper-local and hyper-hands-on?

That might happen in certain Montessori- or Waldorf-based schools that, during the early years of a child’s life at least, emphasize experience- and sensory-based learning through practical activities. Charter schools and private schools centered on outdoor education, environmental education, or green education are also already headed down that path.

Public schools show some bright spots of innovation here and there, to be sure. For example, the National Farm to School Network, a grant-funded collaborative program administered by eight regional centers, promotes gardening and composting on school property. So far the network supports 2,224 programs nationwide. The Leave No Child Inside movement, inspired by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, promotes nature-based learning and outdoor classrooms in schools. And many schools, particularly middle schools, participate in adventure programs like Outward Bound and Project Adventure, designed to challenge students physically while promoting leadership and team-building skills.

But for the most part, public schools are overwhelmed just trying to deliver the old kind of twenty-first-century education, the one where students need to be knowledge workers in a wired, interconnected, global economy. In fact, thanks to chronic underfunding only made worse by the recession and an ever-increasing list of state and federal mandates, many schools are having a hard time hitting the mark for last century’s curriculum standards.

Consider the Common Core State Standards, an initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association to establish a uniform set of expectations for students anywhere in the country. Thirty states (including my own, Massachusetts) have signed on, and yet, to educators and others who follow trends in education, the standards, which cover only English language and math, seem depressingly out of touch with either vision of twenty-first-century life—wired or wild.

My boys both have a class called Life Skills, but it’s about good nutrition and staying off drugs and avoiding STDs. That’s fine as far as it goes—God knows you don’t want to be trying to survive an apocalypse and contending with venereal disease at the same time—but I wish they had more of what we used to call, in the dark ages when I was in public school, Shop and Home Ec (the latter now more snazzily known as Family and Consumer Sciences).

Those disciplines are being dropped from curriculae across the country in favor of keyboarding, Power Point 101 and so forth. (Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, is a lament for the loss of what he calls the “useful arts” from our schools and our society.) At our regional high school, shop and home ec (well, their better-named equivalents) are offered only as electives, but kids vying for top-tier colleges don’t take them seriously in any case; they’re too busy trying to pack their schedules with the AP classes that we’re repeatedly told are like catnip to admissions officers.

Last year, Will’s middle school replaced a popular engineering class that had kids designing bridges and building mini racecars with a public speaking class. The move was partly due to budget cuts—the engineering teacher, who had tenure, was expensive, and the speech teacher was not—but also due to the conviction that public speaking was a more useful modern-day skill than building things with your hands. Me, I didn’t agree.

What should the role of education be in a climate-changed, crisis-prone world? I put in a phone call to McKibben, who is both a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and father to a seventeen-year-old daughter.

“When education started in this country, the goal was to round off people who were already practically skilled,” McKibben says. “Most people grew up knowing how to do things like raise their own food and an astonishing number of tasks that we no longer know how to do. You went to school to read the classics and get some polish.

“We’re now kind of in the opposite situation, where kids spend one-hundred percent of their time in a mediated environment. We learn about the world through one school or another. So we might need to be thinking more about using school to introduce us to those practical things that we don’t know how to do anymore.”

Suburban survival guy Sean Brodrick lists in his book new careers that adults should be prepared to adopt should they find themselves in a world where the economy has collapsed or fuel has disappeared, jobs like bike mechanic, tool maker, cobbler, acoustic musician, or (my favorite) beer maker.

On the phone, I point out to him that, with the exception of music, none of those is a skill commonly picked up by kids, either in school or at their myriad enrichment activities.

“I’m not saying you should run out and apprentice your kid to a tailor,” Brodrick says. “Just pick a skill that can be done in the absence of electricity, something they can do with their hands where they can pitch in.” His own son takes archery, for example; his daughter rides horses (which counts, I suppose, as an alternative source of transportation). Brodrick himself makes beer, for the fun of it now, he says, but also because, as he writes in his book, “Everybody is going to be stressed after a collapse. You might be able to make a good living thinking outside the box on how you can relieve [that] stress.”

Beyond the homemade brewskis, he makes sure that his kids are learning more than one language, that they can do basic calculations in their heads, not just on a calculator, and that they learn how to haggle, a skill he believes will become invaluable when resources run scarce.

In short, when it comes to preparing your kids for the worst, he says, “I wouldn’t tell them you’re going to die early and they’ll be left in the world on their own, but you do want to raise them to be able to survive without you.”

Other than the unimaginably sorrowful assertion that we—twentieth-century humans—have broken the planet pretty much permanently, the other big takeaway from McKibben’s Eaarth is that climate-change disasters are and will be happening everywhere, simultaneously.

Thanks to our world-is-flat connectedness, there isn’t and won’t be any place to go where you won’t be affected in some way, he contends. In 2008, when an over-enthusiastic United States suddenly decided to keep a slightly larger portion of its corn crop home, for use as biofuel, rather than exporting it, the move caused food riots in thirty-seven countries, McKibben writes. Oops.

That extreme interconnection is unique to our generation, and it’s scary. But if you can look beyond it—or, more accurately, before it—the human race has a long and storied history of disasters, calamities, and catastrophes, and through it all, at least some people have managed to beg, borrow, and barter their way toward survival. I wanted to know: What skills did these survivors have, what actions did they take, what qualities did they possess, besides luck, that saw them through?

Mucking around online, I found a study done by a team of researchers from the International Centre for Migration and Health in Geneva on mental health and coping in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was intriguing, because before the Yugoslav wars, Sarajevo and other cities in the region were modern, cosmopolitan municipalities, ones that went very quickly downhill in the war. That rapid change might be roughly analogous to what Americans might be confronted with if, say, a water war broke out between Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The report, which looked at the impact of civilian uprooting, displacement, and family disruption during war, found that “there was an overwhelming loss of perceived power and self-esteem. Over twenty-five percent of displaced people…said they no longer felt they were able to play a useful role; even in non-displaced populations approximately eleven percent of those interviewed said that they had lost a sense of worth. Widespread depression and feelings of fatigue and listlessness were common and may have prevented people from taking steps to improve their situation.”

This plays into what Brodrick asserts: In a prolonged crisis, when schools are shut and people aren’t able to go to their twenty-first-century jobs, we’ll still need something to do—not just to obtain the basic necessities of life, though we’ll need that, but also for our mental health. More important, history shows that we need to do these hands-on, take-action kinds of things not alone, or not even hunkered down with just our immediate relatives, but in larger groups.

That can be a thorny concept for Americans to embrace, what with our long-standing national tendency to exalt the virtues of the rugged individual, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at the The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“When we think of the Wild West, we admire the rugged loner, but what really helped the West succeed was community cooperation—barn raisings and so on—and government assistance with things like irrigation, transportation and electrification,” Coontz points out.

That natural tension between loner and community is still with us, she says: “The things that allow you to succeed as an individual in a competitive society—pursuing your goal with tunnel vision, being the very best—those things are unhelpful in a real crisis like war or depression.”

In researching her forthcoming book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz interviewed women who had lived through the Depression. Rather than stockpiling food and resolving to go it alone, families cooperated. “If they had an opportunity to buy flour, they bought more than they needed and gave it to other people, counting that those families would return the favor when they could. It was relationship-based survival.”

In fact, as far back as prehistoric times, says Coontz, foraging and hoarding never guaranteed that a family would have enough to eat. Instead, a hunter who’d had a successful kill would share with the group, with the understanding that his family would have a share of future kills. “From earliest times, the best chance you have of increasing your fitness as an individual is to share and cooperate with the group,” she says.

All that made me feel a bit better about long-term crises like another depression or a currency collapse. I picture my little family banding together with our neighbors, us with our stash of canned stew, them with the big generators they fired up after the storm that kept their house warm and their lamps lit as we shivered in the dark.

But what about more urgent, if shorter-term, catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina? Haven’t we all absorbed the horror stories of people looting, shooting, and leaving their fellow humans to die?

As it turns out, the people who were a danger in New Orleans were not looters: They were people who thought other people were out to loot them. So explains Rebecca Solnit, whose book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), examines how people behaved in five North American disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires; the 1917 Halifax cargo ship explosion; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; September 11, 2001; and Hurricane Katrina.

In New Orleans, where Solnit spent time interviewing survivors, “elite panic” was the big danger once the floodwaters stopped rising. Wealthier (usually white) people, falsely believing that looting was rampant in the city, organized and began firing upon and sometimes killing unarmed African Americans. The second group of “elites,” Solnit contends, were those in power—the law enforcement and other government officials whose edicts imprisoned and endangered residents, in essence treating victims as if they were criminals.

Those who managed to avoid both the vigilantes and the official blockades behaved admirably, often overcoming their own suspicions and prejudices to do so. (As she puts it in her book, these volunteer rescuers were “armed, often, but also armed with compassion.”) In fact, from all the disasters she studied, Solnit concludes, “The prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic and brave.” I perked up a bit, reading this, because it sounded more than a bit like my list of squishy liberal values. Maybe there was some hope for my boys after all?

In her research, Solnit discovered a quality linking all these disasters: In the midst of catastrophe, survivors experienced an unexpected relief, even joy, when their worlds were turned upside down and their complex, pressured lives were reduced back to the basics. “Sometimes disaster provides a remarkable reprieve,” she writes, citing “a sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.”

On the phone, she sums it up this way: “You know the way machines reset after a blackout? In a disaster, it’s as if people revert to their original settings. They’re resourceful; they’re able to improvise.”

So what message is there in all of this for people raising kids?

Beyond the obvious basics (children in earthquake- and flood-prone areas should practice the appropriate evacuation techniques; everyone should have practiced what to do in a fast-moving fire), Solnit says children and parents alike should know the people in their physical communities and be ready to work with them, whether they feel fully akin to them or not. “In a disaster, your wealth is going to be the people around you,” she points out. “Your Facebook friend list is not going to get you out of a burning building.”

This sense of physical community is where the middle and upper classes are sometimes at a deficit.  “People who are poor often live closer to the edge, so their wealth is each other, their survival is each other,” she says. “Middle-class, white people have liberated themselves from that. In the course of that, we’ve sometimes lost those networks of affinity and trust and knowledge, of knowing the way around a city.”

That message resonates with McKibben. “The real skill for survival doesn’t have to do with whether you can start a fire,” he says. “It has to do with whether you can get along with the people around you. In some ways, this has become the skill we’re least good at—building societies and building contact with each other.”

Brodrick puts this same sentiment a bit more bluntly: “If you think you can get through a disaster by defending just your own turf, here’s something to think about. These crises will come in waves, and in between, civilization is going to return. Order will be restored, and when it does, you don’t want to have been the biggest asshole on the block. People will remember that.”

Trust me on this: It messes with your head to think too much about The End of the World As We Know It. After reading and talking nothing but Armageddon for weeks on end, I found myself pricing solar panels and making mental space in our yard for a flock of chickens and perhaps a private well, while all around me in our affluent little suburb people continued gassing up their SUVs, edging their lawns, and cranking the AC as if nothing at all were wrong with the cosmos.

When I try to sort out how I feel about all this, I’m not at all sure the altruistic, joyful response to crisis that Solnit talks of would kick in for my family, at least not right away. Sure, we connected with our community during our blackout—neighbors checked on senior citizens, residents with chainsaws helped clear driveways and side roads, and the library, which had its power restored early, quickly turned into a kind of rowdy, indoor town square, with people swapping news and damage reports while re-charging their drained cell phones and tapping into the building’s free Wi-Fi via their laptops.

That said, my chief recollection of our three days without power is of deep cold and deep crankiness. And I was a little shocked to see how many people high-tailed it out of town, and how quickly—to relatives, to hotels, or, most commonly, to their ski houses in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Gee, I wondered, do I have to add “buy a second home” to my disaster to-do list? All in all, I’m not looking forward to coping with catastrophe, even if there may be an unexpected state of grace included as a side dish.

Still, there is a kind of twisted comfort in thinking about the kind of “powered-down” society that McKibben says we’ll have to adopt if we’re going to continue to live on Eaarth, “holding on against the storm,” he writes, by living “lightly, carefully, and gracefully.” I know I’m being naïve, but it’s not completely distressing to picture my family making a quiet life amidst this kind of long-term societal collapse—bartering with our neighbors, hoeing our small plot, homeschooling and hauling firewood, no longer concerned with any modern definition of success.

Bringing a child into the world is an act of optimism, and while nobody reads you the fine print in the delivery room, the unstated implication is that as a parent you’re expected to hold up your end of the bargain—that is, to keep on being optimistic, even when the evidence is to the contrary.

I started out worrying that we’d all have to learn how to shoot a gun or build a barricade around our four-bedroom colonial, and, while it’s true we all need to have something we can do with our hands, I’m at least a little bit comforted to know that thing can be fishing, or tailoring, or repairing a bicycle.

As for the community piece, well, there’s a bit of a vindication there as well: Tom and I have long second-guessed our decision to risk financial ruin by moving to our close-knit but expensive community. Now it makes some sense to have invested in a kind of living arrangement—which, to be fair, can happen in cities and towns of all sizes and income brackets—where you’re forced to get along with your neighbors, or at minimum tolerate them politely, because those are the people you see over and over every day, every season of every year.

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.

If that doesn’t work, and the shit really does hit the fan, I’m teaching them to brew beer.

Author’s Note:  I had planned on using this space to try to lighten things up a bit—say, make a joke about not having to pay for college now that the End of the World is nigh—but the fact is, having paid full attention for six weeks to the state our planet is in, I’m not really feeling the funny. Instead, a request: Please read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth. (It’s short, you can make it through, even with a baby at your breast or a toddler at your knee.) Then share it with a friend.

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.

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